Even the most casual reader of this space knows that I am bullish on public education. But there is one school system in Georgia that I haven’t talked about much even though it is near and dear to my heart. It is the Georgia Preparatory Academy, the state’s 181st school district and a part of the Department of Juvenile Justice, on whose board I have had the pleasure to serve for the past several years.
Georgia Preparatory Academy has some 1,300 juvenile offenders in its system throughout the state from grade 6 through post-secondary and employs 21 lead teachers and a large and qualified support staff.
Teachers by their very nature are dedicated to their chosen profession. That is why they put up with all the outside interference, second-guessing, apathy and political grandstanding. And there are no more dedicated teachers than those involved in Georgia Preparatory Academy. I know. I’ve seen them work. They are dealing with young people who have lost their way and ended up incarcerated. Some of their stories would break your heart.
For many, education is the only opportunity these kids will have to break the cycle of poverty, drugs, abuse and gangs that have been an ongoing part of their life. Some take advantage of the opportunity, some don’t.
At a recent board meeting, I had the opportunity along with other board members to hear from four young people who beat the system — in a positive way. I wanted to share their stories with you.
Chase Thomas told us his troubles with the law began when he was 13. “I got caught up in drugs at a very early age,” he said, “I was a very lost youth.” Chase told the board it took him four years at a Youth Detention Center to finally develop an appreciation for the educational opportunities being offered him and for him to take advantage of those opportunities. He did and now he is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in business administration at Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Georgia. He is married with two children and active in his church. He also is sharing his experiences as a former juvenile offender to help keep others on the right road.
Carlos Valdez was 16 when he was remanded to the Department of Juvenile Justice. While in custody, Valdez earned his General Education Development (GED) certificate. He also earned certification in construction, nursery greenhouse work and as a Microsoft applications specialist. He is now gainfully employed and a father will a new child on the way. “By the grace of God, I am here today,” he told the board. I think even God would give Georgia Preparatory Academy and its staff a bit of the credit, too.
Shedeedreonna Mallory was a troubled teen by the age of 15. “I had a bad attitude. I stopped going to school. I started doing bad things,” she said. While in custody, she went into a special arts program and developed a naturally affinity for art. But she says she learned a lot more than art. “I learned how to respect others and learned everything can’t go my way,” she told the group. “I changed for the better.”
After her release, Shedeedreonna graduated from high school and is pursuing her dream of a college degree.
Christie Nash experienced a childhood that no child should have to endure. I will spare you the details. She admitted she was an angry, rebellious teenager who was in and out of foster homes and a runaway at 13. After being committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice, she was able to turn her life around. “I honestly felt hopeless,” she said, “and thank DJJ for believing in me. They gave me hope when no one else did.” After leaving the custody of DJJ, Christie Nash decided she wasn’t through changing. She joined the Army and was one of the first women in combat in Afghanistan, serving as a driver-gunner on missions to detonate roadside bombs. Today, she is married and about to receive her degree in radiology.
Four angry kids. Now, four productive tax-paying citizens. That is what Gov. Nathan Deal had in mind when he initiated Georgia’s criminal justice reform. But it would not happen without a group of dedicated professionals at the Georgia Preparatory Academy. Like their colleagues in the other public school systems in Georgia, they are changing lives for the better. Their challenges are greater, but so are the rewards.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.